The title of this blog entry may imply that I took part in Beijing’s most glamourous Thanksgiving presentation of 2009. This, unfortunately, is not true. Despite being held at the Shangri-la’s prized hotel, the Kerry Centre, the Thanksgiving feast was a disappointment.
Instead of mashed potatoes, I ate soupy potatoes. In place of yams, I consumed undercooked diced sweet potatoes. Instead of stuffing, I ate a prawn.
The dessert, however, was a success, and my friends and I took part in devouring the greater portion of the buffet offerings.
And, of course, Thanksgiving has more to do with who you’re with than what you’re eating, so I must say that I was happy with who showed up to the event. If it were only the Americans, I wouldn’t have gone (I hate one out of the three of us). Thankfully, Bolette came and so did other friends from Spain, Canada, Kazakhstan, Turkey, China, and Thailand.
Finally, the night wouldn’t have been the same without the bottle of red wine I drank in the cab and the one that I imbibed at the dinner table.
Here are the pictures in chronological order. Towards the end of the night, I couldn’t exactly breathe nor stand up straight.
Jin Wu Xing, the large warehouse market, provided the kitschy French masquerade masks, while the bar and art districts provided the parties. But no one in Beijing supplied the essential components of America’s favorite pagan holiday: children and candy.
Halloween in Beijing is an opportunity for bars to make a buck and for foreign students to try to capture the feel of a longstanding tradition in the States and elsewhere. For me, however, I was generally unenthused and uninspired by the events of the night, which included a Tim Burton pre-game playlist, a decision to not spend 200 kuai for an overcrowded dance party (that we previously attended for free), and a few hours at Nan Jie, a foreigners’ bar in Sanlitun.
Maybe I’m just not a partier. Or maybe I’m starting to realize that Halloween parties in Beijing are simulacra; just because bars are decorated with pumpkins doesn’t mean that the tradition exists here. Without the sheer enjoyment and genuine fear expressed by the real revelers of the holiday – children - Halloween is dead. But then again, this point of view is clearly an American’s. Moments of disappointment such as these always harken back to the real point of the matter: I can’t step out of the American perspective. I continually try to enter these blank spaces, ironically embodied in a decorated and loud bar, and find myself wishing that I felt something. But what exactly am I looking to feel? And if I felt the feeling of home or of a connection to something familiar, would I be satisfied? Should I be looking for America here?
I remember when I first read James Joyce’s short story, “Clay,” in his work Dubliners, I felt a connection to Halloween even though the author depicted an All Hallow’s Eve celebration from early 20th-century Dublin. Though I hadn’t intentionally been looking for connections between the celebration of the pagan holiday at home and abroad, I was strangely excited by Joyce’s depiction of a rainy night, a woman clad in brown who accidentally chooses death in a game of chance, who also has a pointed nose and a small little body – a husbandless, lonely, and isolatedwoman who has become the quintessential figure of an American (and Irish?) Halloween. Looking back on my first reading of the story, I can say why I felt connected to Joyce’s depiction of the holiday. Now, having just read it again, I realize that I like the story because it’s layered; Joyce intertwines the rich Celtic history of All Hallow’s Eve with the state of Ireland’s then contemporary social ailments. Though I can’t necessarily relate, I can tap into a rich space - the piece begs its readers to come along and play in a kind of Sartrean fantasy land – where both reader and author put in half of the effort.
In Beijing, I sometimes have a hard time tapping in. I sensed that the Halloween scene was vapid, while the days leading up to the National Day was laden with a heavy and rich history. Yet, I couldn’t enter into either of those spaces, as the former didn’t offer anything and the latter was so layered and complex that all that I wanted to do was watch (and that was all that I was allowed). Critical inquiry in China requires so much of me. Culturally, there aren’t many crossovers. And when there are, I feel as though they’re empty – I don’t want to dig deeply into consumerism in China and its adaptation of American cultural practices.
So for now, I am on the outside just taking it all in. Critical inquiry will come later, but this first trip is purely experiential.
Now can someone please sum all of this up in a concise and well written statement of purpose?
At the south gate before departing (everyone sans Maria)
During my trip to Xi’an last week, I promised myself that I would write down every minute of it for all to see and enjoy. Now, seven days later and with a load of new memories under my belt, I am reluctant to write down everything. I’ve just copied Maria and Johnny’s pictures to my computer and found some really funny and illustrative photos, plus I have a lot of my own that I’d like to feature here. So, I think it’s best to describe my trip mostly through the photos that I think capture the essence of our 36 hours in a small, yet crowded and bustling city twelve hours southwest of Beijing.
Heading onto the train
Though we went to Xi’an during the second-busiest holiday during the year (the first being the Chinese New Year), we managed to get tickets on one of the night trains. There are five types of tickets for each train: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat, standing ticket. Ideally, we would have liked to have soft sleepers for the twelve-hour trip – you get your own bed and cabin – but we only managed to get soft seat tickets. Third best, I guess. Going there, the train was fairly empty, so we each found two seats to lay across. Sleep was tenuous though, as the sounds of snacking passengers and interminably long Chinese ballads pervaded the car.
Catching some sleep
Johnny, a photography aesthete, found himself working the nocturnal shift and decided to take pictures of all of us mid-sleep.
We went straight to the hotel after arriving in Xi’an, but first had to walk through the bustling train station, where we were surprised to find several people screaming “bing ma yong!” in our faces. Bing ma yong, or the terracotta army – one of China’s most famous tourist sites, second only to the Great Wall – is literally an army of clay soldiers that was dug up by archaelogists in the 1970s (well, discovered by laborers building a highway, one of whom sells his autograph at the main site).
Train station grounds
The army was built in 200 BC (-ish) to protect the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the emperor who, as it turns out, was the first to charter the building of the Great Wall during the Qin dynasty. Anyway, the buses that go to the site, around an hour away from Xi’an, are located right outside the train station, and hawkers will stop at almost nothing to get you on their tour buses, which are priced over 100 rmb more than the city’s bus, which costs a pleasant 7 rmb.
Johnny had booked the hotel online, haphazardly choosing the only one that wasn’t already full. The empty hotel is usually the one that you don’t want to go to, but we actually found ourselves in luck when we realized that the only cost of buying the cheaper chicken was that we had to walk through a filth-laden street to get to our destination.
posing in the hotel room
The hotel was located on a small street full of wholesale vendors and garbarge. After a brutal beating of our olfactory senses, we hit upon a fairly nice hotel; the rooms had individual bathrooms and only cost us 50 rmb/night.
Because we only had 36 hours to travel around Xi’an (there were no tickets left for a return three days later, and we didn’t want to stay for four), we headed out that day to bing ma yong and later to a very famous Muslim market, where one can buy wares and baubles from the Hui Chinese, a group of Muslim Chinese who represent one of many minority groups in China.
The Terracotta Soldiers
Kabobs at the Market
Walking through the market is certainly my favorite memory from Xi’an. While the avenues were as crowded as those in markets in Beijing, the energy was calmer. I didn’t come across clawing vendors or animal cruelty (I really just hate the rabbits in the little box cages). The setting, though, really made me catch my breath.
The Drum Tower
A view of the market from the top of the Drum Tower
The market is located directly under the Drum Tower, which is lit up at night and shines over the entire market, shedding a gold and red light on all of the small tables and their wares. Once you walk through the maze of streets and alleys, you find yourself back at the Tower, where tourists and locals alike mill around eating food and buying postcards. The night ended with a few beers at an outside stand, where all was well except for the drunkard at the table to our left, who made a point to chew rice and then spit it back into his bowl, one mouthful at a time.
Our second and final day was spent climbing the Wild Goose Pagoda (I may have forgotten to mention that Xi’an was the eastern terminus for the Silk Road, which brought Buddhism to China. The pagoda is famous for the massive translations that went on in there, specifically the translating of Buddhist texts from Hindi to Chinese in the year 652 AD.), walking through a beautiful park (and playing ping pong with some local experts), biking along the city wall, and taking the train back home. I’ll leave the rest of my story to my photos and those shot by Maria and Johnny.
I wrote my last entry just as I was heading out the door to go to Xi’an, a very old and famous city twelve hours southwest of Beijing – by train, that is. The trip was short and sweet; I, along with four others, left Beijing at 9:24 PM on Saturday the third and returned at 7 AM on Tuesday the sixth. I have a lot of fun stories and beautiful pictures. I’ll write about it all shortly. But first I’d like to talk about something else: the Beijing nightlife scene.
Last night I went to three different party spots in the city, all located in the middle and east sections of the city, but all vastly different and inordinately fun. If you want to see Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese bands – male bands, that is – playing original work, you must go to Mao’s Livehouse (www.maolive.com). The venue is similar to one you may find in Williamsburg or Alphabet City. The outside facade is designed to look like a warehouse and the interior is similar. The walls are adorned with graffiti and record label banners; the hall itself is a big room with a fairly large floor space with a raised stage. Though the venue can accomodate rocked-out scene, the fun level varies immensely depending on the nights you go, so it’s important to choose your date of attendance wisely. (A group of us hit up this spot a few weeks ago and found the lights on and some fans sitting on the ground watching a mellow band – suffice it to say we left immediately.) Last night was a brilliant night to go, as bands were lined up to play all night and all of the Chinese students were still on vacation. Maria, Isabel, and I got there at around 9:30 and caught a Taiwanese band, Burn, finishing up a set. Their music is pretty catchy if you like alternative rock from the late 80s and early 90s. We heard a song that I’m pretty sure was a rip off of R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion.” The lead singer was an adorable, skinny, suspender-wearing Taiwanese guy with bleached hair (well, partially bleached) and a not-so-great voice. His energy was there, but his sound just didn’t deliver. Nevertheless, we all found ourselves nodding to the beat and enjoying the scene, which, I must say, did not resemble that of a Williamsburg one at all.
Chinese college students don’t go out as much as American students (really, students anywhere else in the world) do. That’s number one. Secondly, if students or young people go out, they won’t drink nearly as much as one would expect at a club scene or concert. Women, especially, drink less than men. While we were in Xi’an, Isabel told me that her language partner never goes out, because, to her, going out is considered dirty, gross, obscene. Of course I can go into an analysis of this attitude towards drinking – but I think I should keep it simple. I actually think that the situation is fairly simple. Either you go out and you’re not studious or dedicated enough, or you stay in and you are a good girl or boy. On this particular night at Livehouse, the venue was filled to half of the hall’s capacity – there were only around six foreigners in the spot. It was nice to see so many people out, but it was clear that people were going out to hear music; no one was holding a drink, and no one stopped off at the bar after the show was over. The lack of drinkers did make me feel a bit more conscious of the beer (or two, or three?) that I inevitably hold in my hand on a night out, but I’m alright with it.
I haven’t even made it to the second set, have I? I must talk briefly about it, because it was much better than Burn. The band had six or so musicians, all men, all young, all about rock and hip-hop and beards and generally being more beautiful than any of the other Chinese men any of us had seen in Bejing up until that point.
Lucky Monkey playing at Mao Livehouse
Anyway, I have their album, and I will make everyone that I know in the States listen to Lucky Monkey (www.luckymonkey.org), not because their music is especially amazing, but because they do a hip-hop rendition of a popular nationalist song we heard for 24 hours straight on October 1st. Aren’t rock and hip-hop about counter-cultural sentiments at their foundations? The utter irony is enough to warrant constant listening.
The concert ended after Lucky Monkey’s set. While the Beijing crowd piled out as if the building was about to burn down, the foreigners (waiguoren) lingered to chat with the boys of Burn and LM. I ended striking up a conversation with one of the guitarists from Burn, who spoke a bit of English and wanted to practice on me, but let me speak Chinese for the majority of the conversation. “Oec” – as he’s called by his friends – explained that while playing in a band is fun, his real dream is to graduate with a PhD from Princeton (okay, yes, I got excited and did talk a little bit about you, Joe) in Physics. First though, he has to complete a mandatory year in Taiwan’s military. Because I’ll be in Taiwan next spring, I thought it’d be good to exchange number and emails, so we’ll be hanging out next spring! I told him I’d help him prepare for the TOEFL, an English proficiency examination for foreigners, and he said he’d help me prepare for the HSK, a Mandarin proficiency test.
When the conversations all but died out, we decided to go to an opium den-themed bar, Bed, which is located in a small hutong that even taxi drivers don’t recognize (or is it our Chinese?? No, this time the driver really didn’t know the hutong. But I’ve actually been kicked out of a cab before because the driver didn’t understand what I was saying – okay, that’s not true. He understood what I was saying, he just didn’t want to go to the destination….another cab driver understood it perfectly!!) Remember when I said that young people don’t really go out in Beijing?
Isabel on a bed in Bed
Well, that’s true of the savvier scene too during the weekdays. Bed, which is considered one of trendier bars in the city, was empty when we arrived at 11:30. It didn’t matter though, because the owner of the place let us sit anywhere we wanted. Usually you’d have to pay 400 rmb to sit in the nicer sections of the bar, which feature nineteenth-century style beds that patrons actually have to take their shoes off for before climbing in. The bar is dimly lit and must be really nice on a Saturday, when the owner brings in a DJ to play house and techno beats. The three of us got to scramble into the nicest bed and tried to imagine what being an opium addict at a opium den in a narrow hutong in Beijing must have been like 150 years ago. It was hard to imagine, since we were drinking whiskey and cokes and smoking cigarettes with Jack Daniels ashtrays (I’ve only been bumming, if anyone cares - just trying to be honest).
The bar was nice, but too silent for our last night out before resuming our daily classes (Saturday-Friday this upcoming week – weekend classes to make up for our extravagant holiday). Dario and Mechal kept calling us, anyway, to remind us that it was imperative that we celebrate Mechal and Vincente’s birthdays at Mix, a gigantic meatmarket of a club, in front of which everyone had collected themselves. After gingerly exiting our bed, we headed out of the hutong (not before I mistakenly told the owner of the bar that I’d be back with all of friends. This Saturday? she asked. I had to tell her that we all had class and assured her that Yexu xia ge xing qi de zhou mo wo men yao hui lai! (Maybe next weekend we’ll come back!)). When we got to Mix, we found around fifteen of our people there, who informed us that girls were free, the club was crowded as all hell, and it was time to go in, NOW.
The club is housed in a mammoth building. Security guards greet you at the door and shove flashlights in your bags, then they make your check your coats and bags (I held on to mine) before corralling you onto the dance floor. Before you can enter the gyrating mass of bodies,
The only image my camera would pick up of the scene at Mix
a free drink is handed to you by the bartender (no explanation as to the contents), and then, finally, you make your way to the fun. The three hours that I was there was a bit of a whirlwind. The club is a really great place for dancing, as the DJ spins really current hip-hop beats and mixes in some pop songs in between. No Chinese songs, though, just American and British. Somepeople acquired a corner table in the back of the bar, so I hopped from table to floor over the course of the nether hours.
We ended up leaving at 3:30-ish. Before going to my dorm, though, I picked up some circular dumplings (baozi) at our favorite spot right outside of the south gate. It was great to be there so late, because we got to see a young guy and his mom (?) preparing the baozi for the morning’s breakfast crowd. I asked him how many they make every day, and he said around 2000 pieces, which is quite a lot, don’t you think?
Tonight marks the last night of our vacation. We’re celebrating by going to a sushi restaurant on the other side of town. It’s a little pricey (we have to make reservations), but it’s a necessary ending to a peaceful yet productive and active break. Thank you, Chairman Mao, for kicking out the Nationalists sixty years ago. But, also, thanks to those involved in Cross-Strait relations for allowing Taiwanese people (young musicians, especially) to come back to China and show us a good time.
As many people reading this blog may know, October 1st marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Because of this great event, the government has instated many preventive and preparatory measures to ensure that the day will go well – without any interruptions.
Prevention: No one may enter campus without flashing a student id card at the campus gates. Though international students are required to show their student cards, the government is more interested in Chinese students, who are not allowed to bring any students from other universities to their own. This is because the government does not want to take the chance of allowing any student-organized protests.
Preparation: The first full rehearsal for the upcoming parade was held on Friday. In order to halt foot traffic around the Tian’anmen Square area, the government closed down many subway stops, and, in turn, blocked the way home for many commuters.
Prevention: A group of us took a walk around the wangfujing area tonight, a section of the city reminiscent of Times Square. We decided to walk a few kilometers west to Tian’anmen Square, but found that the road was blocked off a few hundred feet before the entrance. Though cars and buses were allowed through, pedestrians were not. It’s interesting that the square is off limits even though the rehearsal ended last night at 5 am. A few of us have conjectured that the government is wary of pedestrians a. dirtying up the place, or b. placing explosives around the area.
Prevention: As a means of ensuring that no one will be injured or killed during the parade, the government is not allowing anyone who lives in a building or is staying at a hotel on the parade route to look outside of their windows during the parade. Those who have not been granted official access to the parade will have to watch it from their tvs and not from their windows, roofs, or stoops.
Hello to all who are diligently reading this blog. I’m really sorry that I haven’t been updating more often, but I’m just having some difficulty finding time to write really thorough entries about my experiences here.
I am keeping a journal, though, and I have a bunch of topics that I have yet to write about. So, here’s my plan: in order to catch up, I’m going to give some short summaries about what I’ve been up to. I will write more detailed entries about these experiences later, or I will incorporate them into other entries at some point during the semester. If you’re reading this and you’d like to hear more about one of my many excursions/experiences, let me know! I check all of my comments. Oh, and thanks for reading this blog! It’s great to know that people are staying up to date on my life in Beijing!
1. I recently went to one of the famous markets in Beijing, Yashow Market, and
Great buys at Yashow
managed to bargain my way into some really great prices for several “luxury” items. My favorite bargain was a camera case that the saleswoman originally priced at 25 RMB that I got down to 9 RMB. Though this wasn’t my most successful bargain, it was fun because I held my own and kept my price at 9 RMB, even when the woman was offering it to me for 10 RMB. She knew I knew Chinese, so she kept saying, “Ni hen ma fan!” which literally means, “You are very annoying!” I was really elated by her dissatisfaction with me, I guess because bargaining is just so much fun, and I knew she was putting on a show, just like I was.
2. On Friday, I went to the Beijing Zoo (Beijing dong wu yuan) to see the pandas. Along the way, we saw a few really sad rhinoceroses who probably hated the fact that they were dying a very slow death. It looked like they didn’t have enough (or any)
A sad rhinoceros
water, but then we saw that it was possible for them to walk into a big holding room, so we hoped that there was water in there. We also saw a lot of other animals, including an elephant who looked really upset about being outside, and was sticking his trunk into a closed
A happy panda
door, but was getting no answer. The pandas looked like they were well taken care of, and were a good end to a pretty sad visit. I mean, all zoos are terrible, so even a trip to the Bronx zoo may have left me feeling the same way.
3. The employed: There are so many service-employees in China. Every restaurant, store, subway station, etc. is overstaffed. While this can be really great for situations when one puts her subway card into a machine when she’s not supposed to and someone has to fetch it out and is immediately at her service (not me, of course!) it’s great. But when five waiters are staring at your table and giggling, it can get a little weird and uncomfortable.
4. I went to two places of extreme interest to some readers today: McDonalds and
Me with a Swede and a Spaniard in front of Ikea
Ikea. The McDonalds experience was interesting because nothing was really different.On the walls, there were many pictures of white people laughing, and the menu was exactly the same as in New York, but perhaps without the triple burger. Ikea, on the other hand – wait a minute here, it was also the same as in the States!! Perhaps most interesting, though, was the pile of woks available for purchase and a Chinese woman who was eating Swedish meatballs
Eating Swedish meatballs with chopsticks
with chopsticks. The experience was especially cool because I went with two Swedes, who showed me a side to Ikea that I have never known before, like which candies to buy and what the names of the furniture mean.
5. On Saturday, Maria and I got full body massages at a place for 45 RMB/ hour (that’s less than $7.00/hour). It was amazing, but painful. I felt good afterwards, so I think I’ll go back again.
6. I have a language partner! Her name is Victoria (Chinese name: Li Hua). She’s really funny – asked about Oprah and American Idol today. She loves Michael Jackson, as well. Awesome point: She’s from Xi’An, a city that I really want to go to during my October holiday. She said that if I went she’d be a tourist guide for me and my friends, and she’d also help us with finding a cheap and clean hotel to stay in for a few days.
7. To Dad: No, everyone does not smell bad in China. I’m confident in the fact that everyone brings tissue, or if they don’t, they have a way of going that doesn’t allow for much drippage. Also, I don’t know how everyone stays so thin. There’s a shit-ton of oil in all of the food. Perhaps it’s because they don’t eat food in very high quantities.
As I was looking through my entries today, I realized that I haven’t spoken much about food since my takeout experiences last week and my special Peking duck dinner. I think I should take a moment to update on what (and how) I eat on a daily basis over here.
Monday through Friday, I have class from 8:00 am-12:00 pm, so I tend to eat breakfast at around 10:00 am, lunch at 12:30 pm, and dinner at around 6:00 or 7:00 pm.
At around 7:40 am I pick up a refrigerated beverage by the name of Caffe Latte. I need it to hold me over for the first two hours of class. For breakfast, I’ve been eating a guan bing, a pancake with an egg in the middle that closes in on lettuce and smoked chicken in a taco-esque fashion, which you can find being sold on major streets or in small alley ways. Though it’s delicious, it’s around a trillion calories, so I don’t think I’ll be eating it every morning this semester.
Lunch is a bit more exciting, as the fourth-level class (si ban) tends to go to lunch together. We don’t travel more than a few blocks away from campus, but we try to go to a different restaurant every day.
Flower Tea Water
Ordering gets a little bit easier with each meal, but sometimes it’s a challenge. It took until yesterday to order the right flavored tea, as we kept forgetting to say shui, which means water, after saying the words hua cha, which means flower tea. In China, restaurants do not serve tea, they serve tea water. Tea water looks a lot like tea. We’re really not sure why our fu yuan - waiters/waitresses – have had such a difficult time working through our language deficiencies, but we think it’s because they think that we want tea bags, which really isn’t the case.
OK. Enough about the tea. Let’s get to the real food. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten more eggplant, or qie zi, in my whole life. All we order is chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, noodle, and eggplant dishes. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever ingested more oil in the 22 years that I’ve been alive. Every single dish is cooked with oil, and arrives at our table glistening with it. We eat the dishes as fast as we can, because we know
Our usual eggplant dish
that when the food gets cold, the magic is over. What was once a beautiful dish of vegetables becomes a plate of wilted vegetables sitting in a pool – literally, a pool – of oil.
For dinner, many of the international students regroup into a horde and we head out to one of the local restaurants. While dinner is usually a copy of lunch, lately I’ve been considering heading out to wudaokou or another area to try some other cuisines.
On Thursday, Bolette and I tried out some Italian cuisine in sanlitun, the area where all the shooter bars are and also where all of the embassies are located. Though we didn’t plan on eating international cuisine, we saw some red-and-white-checkered tableclothes and immediately became moths to the flame that was this small, dinky Italian restaurant.
Bolette, in a moment of haste and delusion, ordered an entire pizza for
herself. I, in a similar state of delirium, ordered a four-cheese penne dish. Despite our restaurant choice, we couldn’t help but speak Chinese to the waiter, who was pleasantly surprised by our ability to speak at all. I asked him if the people that usually dine at this restaurant speak Chinese, and he said that most people in the area don’t. This fact made me (and Bolette) remember how lucky we are to live wayyy on the west side of town, where the trees aren’t manicured and HSBC banks are nowhere in the near distance. Rather, we have toilet paper-less squatter toilets to deal with (I carry around single-wrapped wipes in a cute knock-off LeSportsSac bag) and street vendors to talk to (and yes, Uncle Jake, they speak the same dialect of Chinese that we all do). A New Yorker - a nuyorican, I should say – can think of it like this: it’s like living in Washington Heights and going to 72nd and Park for dinner.So, while it’s nice to go to the fancy part of town, it’s still great to go back home to xizhemen, home sweet home.
Interestingly, because Bolette and I have been eating Chinese food – and only Chinese food – for around two weeks, our bodies did not take well to our Italian meals. I felt a bit under the weather when I got home, but thankfully my body’s lactose-intolerant bout lasted only a bit, because I got to skip the whole diarrhea experience that could have been the next step in my body’s effort to rid itself of new food.
My first weekend out of quarantine was like the first weekend out of, well, prison. I traveled in a horde of international students for the better part of Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday stayed in my dorm to do some homework and laundry before going out to dinner with Scott, a camp professional that I met in the States, and his family. I took a lot of great pictures, so brace yourselves for a long entry o’ fun.
The weekend started on Friday, a day full of rain and really really dark clouds. Because it rained pretty hard, I got a chance to see how Beijing handles drainage. I learned that drainage is handled in a mediocre fashion in the city (at least my area, the northwest district, Haidian) and that one must be creative when trying to avoid very large puddles on one’s way to class. For instance, I had to jump onto a ledge to dodge a gigantic pool of brownish water and figure out how the two-way traffic had to run on this ledge, which was not more than a foot wide.
More interesting than puddles are the mini floods that dot the city
A flooded street in Haidian
after a long rain. On a walk with Renata after my morning classes, I discovered a street that was flooded up to the curb, but the street on the other side of it (it was separated by a divider) was just fine. I came across a few more of those streets on a short sojourn at to Central University of Finance and Economics, which is only a few blocks away from Jiaoda.
After relaxing for a bit in the afternoon, I headed out with a bunch of people to a small restaurant right off campus,
where we ate a lot of delicious food and drank Tsingtao, a beer that is only 3.1% alcohol (most beer is 5%) but comes in a gigantic bottle. (This weekend was full of Tsingtao – which may contribute to my returning to the States looking like a balloon.)
After dinner, I went with a few people to Sanlitun, the “hip” bar and club area on the northeast side of Beijing (my school is located in the northwest area) where you can find all of the young foreigners who are on vacation in the city. What is really cool about the area is that the most fun outside drinking spots are located in wide alleys. The layout is slightly reminiscent of outdoor seating in areas of the village, except that everything is much closer together and you really can’t tell which club you’re buying drinks from. After hanging outside for a while, around nine more international students showed up, and we headed to a bar
Taiwan Duck Fart, Quick Fuck, and Slippery Nipple are perhaps my favorite names
that featured specialty shots (or “shooters” as they’re called here). In all honesty, I’ve never seen a funnier array of shooter names in all of my life. I know there are some young people reading this blog (ahem, Maddy), but I have to post a picture of the shooter names. Vincent, a Spaniard who loves to party (don’t they all?), made me and my two friends Bolette (from Denmark) and Maria (from Sweden) take shots of Taiwan Duck Fart. The drink was actually quite good – Bailey’s and whiskey mixed together. After partying at the shooter bar, a bunch of us decided to go home while the others decided to go to a Salsa bar. Before grabbing the cab home, however, the early birds went to a Pakistani restaurant, where Habib, a student from Pakistan, wanted to eat a bit more before restarting his fast in the morning (as many of you probably know, it’s Ramadan). Though I was a bit drunk, I was coherent enough to watch a tennis match between Serena Williams and someone else (not sure…) while chewing on a lamb kabob with Barry, a software engineering student from Ghana. The night ended when we finally trekked home at about 3:00 am.
I wanted to sleep more than six hours, but was rudely awoken by a telephone ringing in our room on Saturday morning. It was Mei Mei’s friend asking her if she wanted to check out the bird’s nest, where all of the international students happened to be going. Mei Mei headed out with her Thai posse at about 11:00 am, but it took until two for us all to get out of our dorms. I, along with nine people, then started my ten-hour exploration around Beijing.
Before hopping on to the subway, we grabbed qian bing from a local vendor, which is kind of like a Chinese omelet. The ingredients are dough, egg, and various vegetables, and it looks like a folded pancake. I’m really happy that I’m not listening to people’s warnings against vendor food. The only things that you can really contract from it are hepatitis A and traveler’s diarrhea, and I’m vaccinated for the former and I have medication for the latter. I’m taking my chances.
After grabbing some food, we headed down to the subway, where Rob – an American from San Francisco – proceeded to assist Bolette and me with getting a subway card. In order to enter the subway station, you have to put your bags on a security belt; it feels like you’re in an airport. Grabbing a subway card wasn’t difficult, but it is hard just to buy one trip. Many of the automated machines don’t give change and don’t take $1 bills, so it’s kind of hard to buy one trip, which costs 2 RMB. Before heading out to our first destination, the bird’s nest, the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Rob and Barry had a bit of a tiff over how to get to the north side of Beijing most efficiently. Barry won the fight, but ultimately lost it, because we ended up transferring trains three times. Rob’s route would have only required one transfer. Though the argument was all in good fun, it got a bit annoying towards the end of the night when the boys were still talking about it.
A bird's eye view of the nest
I usually hate going sightseeing to places like stadiums, but seeing the bird’s nest nest was quite an experience. The scale of the Olympic Park (or the niao chao if you want to be fancy) is almost jarring. It’s just SO BIG. A lot of us wondered how such a large park was able to be built – was this space always available? I haven’t been able to dig up any articles that say otherwise, but I am pretty sure that some businesses and homes kindly stepped out of the way for the Olympics to come through last year. Because the Bird’s Nest is so large, the government has had a difficult time renting it out to people willing to pay enough money to have an event there (or so says my friend Maria). Despite the absolute lack of events in the entire Olympic Park at the time, there were plenty of tourists paying 50RMB (about $7) to take a tour of the place. We decided to follow the crowd and did so, but luckily asked the right questions and got to pay the student discount of 25RMB (just divide by 7 to find out the USD amount), which wasn’t listed on the information board.
After spending an inordinate amoung of time in the park, we decided to hop back on the train and go to another area of the city for hotpot, a Japanese-style of eating that involves a steaming pot of hot water and a lot of raw vegetables. As one can imagine, I made a ridiculous mess out of my area of the table. Plopping raw vegetables and meat into boiling water and then scooping it out, all with one pair of chopsticks (let’s just call them kuai zi from now on), was fun and awful at the same time. I tried out some fishballs that looked like gefilte fish, but tasted a bit like the smell of what used to be the South Street Seaport.
While eating at the hotpot spot was a good time, the really good time
started when we went to wudaokou, an area of the Haidian district (the northwest district of Beijing) where all of the students/foreigners go for pizza, beer, Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, and the restaurant/bar that we hit up, La Bamba. What’s really interesting about La Bamba is that there are absolutely no Chinese people there. However, the squatting toilets are surely there, just to remind you that you’re still in China, in case you had forgotten. At 11:30, I left La Bamba with Barry, and we headed over to a club in jisuitan, an area south of wudaokou and west of Jiaoda. In order to get to the club, you tell the taxi driver to let you off on the side of a highway-esque road. Then you walk in an absolutely deserted area with seemingly nothing around it. After doing this for a bit, you make a right down into an alley that looks like it leads into an oblivion. Right before you hit that oblivion though, the path opens up onto a lake, one of the many that was built by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. After walking along the lake for a bit, you come to our club, Club Obiwan, a structure that was once a house, and looks like a deserted one. On entering the club, you realize that there aren’t any Chinese nationals there, either. Renata’s friend was DJ-ing and had seemingly attracted all of the twenty- and thirty-somethings from CRI (China Radio International) and expat journalists from around the area. It was good to be around real working folk, but I quickly tired of the scene and peaced out with Barry at about 12:30.
So a little backstory before we go into Sunday: a few weeks before camp was over, a budding camp professional named Scott stopped by to talk to Jani about sending students from China over to CKM for an immersion/camp experience. Though he was all about business, Scott took a minute to talk to me about Beijing and offered to take me out for Peking duck when I arrived. When I was in quarantine, I gave Scott a call and asked if he’d like to meet up when I was out. He made good on his offer and asked me out to eat with his wife and four-year-old son on Sunday. Thankfully, Scott found me at Jiaoda, as it was pouring all day and I was up for subway exploration after Friday and Saturday’s long days and nights. Scott, his wife, Janet, and their son, Matt, and I ended up going to the fanciest place in town for Peking duck. Not only was the food delicious (there’s nothing like the fat off of a duck’s chest dipped in sugar), but I also got to see the best of Beijing’s restaurant entertainment. While the diners (all foreigners, again) ate, several dancers, singers, and
miscellaneously talented people came up and performed. Scott was also nice enough to give me a cultural lesson on corruption, capitalism, and politics in Beijing (”Everyone’s corrupt. It’s just a matter of who’s out of favor.”). After our dinner, we’ve since kept in touch, and Scott has actually offered me two jobs: one as Matt’s swim instructor and as an English teacher for a friend’s child. I really need some extra money (though I have the buying power of Donald Trump in China) to go to Ikea and buy a down blanket and to keep up my extravagant lifestyle here (just bought an electronic dictionary for 800RMB), so I think I’m going to take him up on his offers.
All in all, the weekend was one that I hope to repeat this upcoming zhou mo (you can imagine what that means). The following weekend’s posts won’t be as detailed, but I wanted to give everyone a chance to see what a weekend is generally like for me out here.